Opera’s chamber of horrors: ‘The Medium,’ well done

As the intrepid Mr. Mead has reminded me, a lot of cool-sounding stuff is pounding the boards of Portland’s performance spaces right now:

Bucky Fuller, Adam Bock, Dead Funny, Guys and Dolls, and despite the mixed reviews I’d like to see Artists Rep’s Speech and Debate — there has to be a reason it was such a can’t-score-a-ticket hit in New York.

But last night as I headed to The Someday Lounge, Halloween was on my mind. And not just because of the weekend trip to the pumpkin patch on Sauvie Island (corn maze, plump gourds, rowdy kids, horrific traffic) but because it was opening night of Opera Theater Oregon‘s The Medium, Gian Carlo Menotti‘s hour-plus 1946 psychological thriller of an operatic melodrama (the word, remember, means simply drama with music).

These days, when people think of Menotti they tend to think of his autocratic reputation in the legacy of the two Spoleto festivals, in Italy and South Carolina. Or they think of Amahl and the Night Visitors, his 1951 television opera, which has become a Christmas-season staple. But although Christmas is coming, the goose ain’t fat yet. This is the time of haunts and ghouls, and The Medium is in perfect pitch with the season.

The Medium is the tale of a blowsy backstairs fortune teller who bilks the bereaved with fake seances between bouts with a bucket of gin. She involves her teen-age daughter, who hides in gauze and moans messages from the “beyond,” and a strange, mute gypsy boy who’s had his tongue cut out. (Yes, the idea of the mute participant-observer predates Jerzy Kosinski‘s The Painted Bird, which is a beautiful novel no matter who wrote it.) And like Henry James‘s classic psychological horror story The Turn of the Screw, Menotti’s opera plays around with the fascinating territory between the real and the unreal, the dead and the not-dead, the external and the internal. What were those voices? Did Madame Flora really feel an icy hand on her neck? What’s sex got to do with it? And as her bereaved visitors suggest, might Madame Flora actually be a true medium, an actual portal between the living and the dead, even though she honestly believes she’s a fake? Or are her customers merely adept at fooling themselves? The thing has its Hitchcock pleasures, and the production raises some fine, creepy prickles on the back of your neck.

I’m a fan of Opera Theater Oregon, because it combines so many things I think are important to the future of the performing arts. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s rationally priced. It unstuffs an often stuffy medium without dumbing it down. It respects tradition but doesn’t hesitate to play around with it. It cannily mixes seasoned performers with bright young voices. It gets out of the massive performance halls and into intimate, friendly, casual spaces: While you’re watching The Medium at Someday Lounge you can also be sipping on a shot of bourbon or a glass of wine and munching on a good, nicely priced snack (although those big chunks of garlic on the hummus plate really ought to be roasted instead of raw: This is The Medium, not Dracula). Sure, the seats are hard. But you’re so close to the action you’re almost sitting on Madame Flora’s lap. Which Madame Flora may or may not enjoy: She’s a tough old bird to figure out.

I’m also a fan of Katie Taylor, Opera Theater Oregon’s artistic director and the stage director of this production. (The musical director is Erica Melton, who besides melding this variety of voices extremely well also provides the attentive and suitably exclamatory piano accompaniment.) Taylor has a keen eye (and ear) for casting, and a crisp sense of pacing: She’s able to settle in to a vivid dramatic moment without letting the flow of the story flag. And once again her love of film comes through, most notably in her opening credits but also in the noirish atmosphere and in Niq Tognoni’s wide-eyed mimed performance as the mute Toby, a performance rooted in the broad gestures of silent film.

At the center of this production is the sterling Christine Meadows as Madame Flora,
giving a fearless performance that combines intense musical color with harrowing high drama: She digs inside the spoiled psyche of this strange woman, and you can almost hear the creaking inside the charlatan’s mind as she goes unhinged. A consummate pro — Meadows spent a couple of seasons at New York City Opera and runs Portland State University’s admired opera program — she’s the anchor here, and, no doubt, an onstage teacher as well. She’s able to modulate her autumnal mezzo-soprano voice to the chamber space and the other performers: She has a lovely, yearning duet with soprano Tsipa Swan, who is bright and lively as Monica, the medium’s daughter.

Mezzo Wendy Parker brings a fiercely scary focus to Mrs. Nolan, the sad and lost visitor whose 16-year-old daughter has died; and Audrey Sackett and the fine baritone Kevin Walsh have a sweet and lovely relationship as the Gobineaus, who keep themselves going through their painful lives by pretending — or are they pretending? — to hear the laughing voice of their long-dead child in their weekly seance at Madame Flora’s.

This Medium feels rough-cut and provisional, and that’s part of its charm: It feels like it’s unfolding in front of you for the very first time, like a story not told before. It’s not unpolished, it’s just not polished — it’s more about discovery than gloss. This is good. By emphasizing drama and intimacy it brings people who might be afraid of opera into the fold. And for longtime devotees of grand opera, it offers a healthy reminder of the form’s dramatic roots and its possibilities as a proletarian art form.

Plus, it’s a ripping good yarn for Halloween.